Tomata du Plenty
David Xavier Harrigan, aka Tomata du Plenty (stage name DePonty) (May 28, 1948 – August 21, 2000) was the singer of the late 1970s Los Angeles electropunk band The Screamers. He was also the founder of Seattle's counterculture troupe Ze Whiz Kidz. During the latter part of his life he focused on painting.
Tomata du Plenty (his stage name was a play on "DePonty", specifically DePonty, a friend and fellow founding member of Ze Whiz Kids) was born as David Xavier Harrigan on May 28, 1948, in the state of New York, of Irish immigrant parents. His family moved to Montebello, California, when he was 9 years old, and Tomata ran away to Hollywood at the age of 15. In 1968 he hitchhiked to San Francisco, California, where he met members of the Cockettes, including Hibiscus.
Tomata led Ze Whiz Kids, a troupe based on Seattle, Washington that blended counterculture comedy with drag theater from 1969–1972. The group staged nearly a hundred musical revues with a cast that featured performers like Satin Sheets, Co Co Ritz, Dyna Flo, Benny Whiplash, Michael Hautepants (costume designer Michael Murphy), Leah Vigeah and real females Valerie Allthetime DePonty (Valerie DePonty), Louise Lovely (Di Linge) and Cha Cha Samoa (Cha Davis, now a painter).
From 1972–1974, Tomata joined friends Gorilla Rose and Fayette Hauser in New York City to bring guerrilla comedy to CBGB's and other East Village clubs, working with then-unknown bands like the Ramones and Blondie. "I used to do Pat Suzuki between their sets", he said. In 1972 and 1973, Tomata and company staged two Palm Casino Revues at the Bouwerie Lane Theater. In between shows, he found time to write an advice column for an adult newspaper and operate a thrift store.
Returning to Seattle in 1975, Tomata formed a band called The Tupperwares with Melba Toast (later Tommy Gear). The band re-formed in Los Angeles in 1976, picking up drummer K. K. Barrett and keyboardist David Brown, and a new name, The Screamers. Brown was later replaced by Paul Roessler. As much theater as rock band, The Screamers eschewed guitars and featured two keyboards, one drummer and assaultive lyrics mostly written and sung by Tomata. Their sound anticipated the electronic rock of the early '80s. Their look—foot-high hair and ripped clothes—was achieved with the help of hair sprays, gels and a full-time stylist (Chloe Pappas).
From 1977–81 The Screamers were L.A.'s leading punk band, and one of the city's leading club draws. They played consecutive sold-out performances at L.A.'s top music venues, including the Whisky a Go Go, the Starwood Club and the Roxy Theatre, but despite several offers never signed a record deal. The band's last performance, without keyboardist Gear, was at the Whisky a Go Go in 1981. Two years before MTV, it incorporated music video with live performances by Tomata, K.K., Paul Ambrose, Shari Penquin and the Fabulous Sheela. Much of the film was later used in a full-length feature, Population: 1, produced and directed by Dutch filmmaker Rene Daalder and featuring a cast of L.A. musicians and scene-makers, including a preschool Beck Hansen. Population: 1 was screened in 1986 at the Cannes International Film Festival and Seattle International Film Festival. In 1987 it was screened at the Chicago International Film Festival and was later released in Europe and Japan. In October 2008, Population: 1 was released on DVD in the United States and Canada.
Tomata was a prolific stage producer, playwright and lyricist who wrote scores of songs, plays, sketches, and musicales. He was fond of quoting an old review by Rex Reed, "No talent is not enough," but hundreds of avid fans disagreed. In 1985 he wrote and performed The Weird Live Show, a series of unconventional shows at the Anti-Club and LACE Gallery in Los Angeles.
In the late 1980s he directed a series of short films with Los Angeles filmmaker Kevin Kierer, including Mr. Baby and Pick Up on Olivera Street featuring Styles Caldwell. He coaxed 50s TV horror-movie hostess Vampira out of retirement, and featured her in several performances and films.
Tomata began his art career in 1983 with a one-man exhibit of watercolor portraits at the Zero One Gallery in Hollywood. Three years later, in 1986, his first paintings on canvas were exhibited at L.A.'s Cheap Racist Gallery at a show called Whores, Sluts and Tramps (at the opening party, guests appeared dressed as their favorite low-life heroes). In 1987, he won the L.A. Weekly's Best Set Design Award for his work on John Fleck's one-man stage show, I Got the He-Be She-Be's. He directed the Compulsive Players in a performance at L.A.'s MOCA that same year and exhibited at the Bye Bye Gallery with artist Diane Gamboa. An exhibit called "Knock Out!," featuring portraits of boxers, appeared in 1988 at the Zero One Gallery in Los Angeles. That same year he was the regular art critic on the cable television series, What's Bubbling Underground, and he guest lectured at the Fashion Institute of Los Angeles. In one of his last stage performances he appeared in The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe with Gronk, Fayette Hauser, Janis Segal and Styles Caldwell at L.A.'s Casa Confetti.
Tomata continued his painting career after moving to Miami's South Beach in 1989. His exhibits—in bars, restaurants and small galleries around the country—were often arranged around a single theme, saluting his favorite poets, TV stars, country/western singers and boxers. Tomata painted people he admired, from historical figures to friends from the punk world, in a style that was emotional, provocative and accessible. He was proud of his status as an outsider artist; he once observed he would rather sell 100 pictures for $25 than one picture for $2,500. In the mid-1990s he moved his studio to New Orleans, Louisiana. Several times a year he would hit the road for exhibits in California, New York and Florida. In January 1999 he appeared in a CNN interview, along with series of paintings featuring Lucille Ball, Elvis Presley and other pop-culture icons.
On August 21, 2000, while in San Francisco, Tomata died of cancer at the age of 52. His remains were cremated, and his ashes were stored at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, in a crypt at the Chapel Columbarium.
In 2012, noted scholar and art collector, Gordon W. Bailey, a champion of du Plenty’s artistry, gifted a number of his superb portraits depicting boxers and entertainers to the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens, GA in honor of the founding members of R.E.M., Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Mike Mills and Bill Berry. Bailey encouraged the museum to pay tribute to du Plenty and following his lead the museum organized the exhibition Boxers and Backbeats: Tomata du Plenty and the West Coast Punk Scene which ran from October 2014 until January 2015. The museum’s pre-exhibition promotional efforts came to the attention of Carlos Iglesias, a founder of The Remainder Is Productions, and Helen Clarke. In the spring of 2014, Iglesias and Clarke, in close association with a number of du Plenty’s friends and collaborators, staged the multi-media event Big Hair: The Life and Times of Tomata du Plenty at Art Share Los Angeles.
In April 2014, The Remainder Is Productions, launched a successful Kickstarter Project which stated: “The goal is to bring Tomata’s untold story to life. We’ve already begun shooting footage of the cast of characters essential to Tomata’s story. As the research continues, we’ve realized what a challenging road lies ahead. This project will be one part detective case and one part treasure hunt. We will most likely need to travel to the various cities where Tomata left his artistic footprint, seek out the players, and find the stories. The people we have met with so far have been generous of time and heart. The interactions have felt somewhat symbiotic in our mutual desire to commemorate his spirit and legacy.”
The Remainder Is Productions’ documentary is currently in pre-production.
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